Where you want to be when the good Lord returns.
by Reid Bryant
First published in Gray’s Sporting Journal Aug. 2013
In September, the summer people left. They hauled their boats and turned them keels-up to the weather, and the better ones put them in sheds. They tied Clorox bottles to their mooring lines and left plenty of scope for the ripping ice of winter. They pulled water intakes from the lake and drained the pipes, shuttered the windows and padlocked the doors, and left keys hidden under rocks only they would remember.
Kelly loved to see them go. She loved when the lake became hers again. The loons and the barred owls, mere spectacles to the summer folk, became in September her eccentric relatives who sang drunkenly into the night. She cherished the evenings when the first wood fire cut the chill in the little lake house, when the mothball-and-sheep smell rose from the blankets folded at the foot of her bed. And finally, amidst all the tokens of summer’s end, Kelly gave up her daily swim.
That year she gave it up well within sight of Columbus Day. She missed the catch-your-breath cold of the morning, and the way her skin pimpled when she pulled herself onto the lakeside ramp of rock to towel off. Her skin went tight as she rubbed the blood back into it, and she’d look at her body and remember how it had been when she was young. Standing there wrapped in a towel, she’d close her eyes and revisit a body unfamiliar with things like wrinkles and creaking knees and fingers crooked from use.
That fall, with the swim a thing of the past, the early mornings bore an unscripted freedom that made room for a second cup of tea. Kelly carried her mug to the sleeping porch, where she sat in the quiet and yodeled at the loons. A single warble rang back from the cove in the east, and Kelly smiled. She’d always been able to conjure a response. There’d been a pair on the lake in summer for as long as she could recall, even in the years when everything else seemed lean. Kelly never worried after the loons’ return, just as she never put much stock in the lean times. There always seemed just enough of everything: partridge and deer in the woods, togue in the deep troughs of the lake, a suitor or two who’d come around to make a play, picking up the electric bill or offering to re-roof the place, as if such gestures might win her. She took what they gave, and thanked them in her way, and encouraged them off down the road when she deemed their debts were squared. Then it was just Kelly again, and the call of the loons in the morning. And in fall, as if exposed by the silence of departed summer folk and barren trees, there was True Rattray.
Teasing True Rattray was one of the few things Kelly’d loved steadily and vigorously her whole life. But tease wasn’t quite the term for the pokings and proddings that Kelly gleefully doled out on her childhood friend. What Kelly loved to do was tempt True Rattray, and rattle him off that narrow way upon which he’d long chosen to walk. Sometimes, in the quieter moments, she even wondered if she hadn’t sculpted her own life as a taunting antithesis to True’s own.
True was a good man, born of a line of apple growers who recorded their genealogy in the gnarled old limbs of the family orchard; who worked the year through in their clean white shirts and flat-soled boots. True lived where he grew up: on the sprawling place just east of Kelly’s, picking and pruning and pressing, tending the trees planted by his great-grandfather, Wallingford Rattray. Nearly 400 acres of rich, black loam tumbled down to the edge of Swan Lake, as well-tended a Maine farmstead as ever there was. Generations of Rattray men had proudly kept it so, bending to their work through the changing times alongside the hard-handed women who loved them obliquely until they went to rest in the cemetery on the hill.
True had the broad shoulders of his father, though his back was bent from the weight of a lifetime of autumn-heavy harvest bags. He worked six days and went to church on the seventh, and he kept his pruners sharp. He grew the finest apples in that apple-growing region, and his fruit was known throughout Maine, as were the cider donuts he fried at the fair each October. He was a good and simple man who the tourists, insensitive to the beauty of good and simple things, considered a true pinch of Maine salt.
Kelly had learned long ago that there was nothing quite so wonderful as tempting True Rattray. There was something irresistible in wielding a devilish power over him, watching him come up against the attitude that trapped him so neatly between well-laid lines. When just a girl, she stood summer Sundays at the split-rail fence dividing their properties, calling out to the boy she knew was kneeling to quiet prayer inside. “True Raaaaaaaaatraay,” she’d call in that singsong voice. “Come on out and plaaaaaay.”
In later years she’d upped the ante, standing naked and dripping on that ramp of rock where she’d announce her morning swim. “Hey, True. Come for a swim. The water’s as cool and clear as the River Gihon.” She stood there all the longer when she knew True was picking the lower orchard, hidden in the trees that looked out over the lake to the south and west. She stood there and felt his eyes on her, felt the weight of conscience that hung like an apple bag from his shoulders, and she smiled and called. The loons might call in response, or the first breath of day might rustle the leaves, but she never got an answer from True Rattray.
True Rattray had a single weakness, one that Kelly shared: partridge. True and Kelly had grown up together amid the splendor of a land regaining itself. With every passing year, more and more of the hillside farms around the lake were abandoned, divided, sold, or simply left fallow, as the farmers tried and failed to convince sons and daughters not to leave. But in the desertion of the potato fields and orchards and mowings, a wealth of partridge emerged. In the popple whips and grown-over orchards, True and Kelly watched generation upon generation of partridge swell to bursting, and through their youth they’d harvested their share. But in the glow of those autumn woods they’d also grown to love the land and the birds and each other. It was a love so elemental and clean that it held no passion, just a thrumming resonance. And it grew as they did and stuck them close, pinned to each other and to the stubble-grown hillsides and the whirr of brown birds fast departing. And aware as they were of it all through the years, they were never tempted to overstep their respective roles.
That morning near Columbus Day, Kelly left the sleeping porch, and put her empty mug in the sink. She saw her reflection in the kitchen window, and the splash of color that hovered behind it, or through it, and she saw that she was old. Her brown hair was sandy and finer than it had been, but her eyes were still black and sparkling. She returned a crinkly smile to her reflection, and said out loud, “Well, if this old bag of bones can’t tempt True with the sins of the flesh, then I suppose I’ll have to make do with stronger stuff.”
She walked to the gun case and opened it, and took out the little Dickson double. It was a beautiful gun, a gift well out of proportion from the one man she’d dared to marry. In some ways, perhaps, it was fair dowry for the years she’d traded to society life, to the house in Boston and the formal dresses and the cocktail parties on the Hill. He’d bought her the gun so they could hunt the Maine woods together on weekends, and they’d done so happily for a few years. But when business began to tether him, and the firm grew richer and more complex, autumn weekends became Kelly’s alone. She didn’t mind. She liked the quiet and the space in the big bed, and she loved the little gun. Pretty soon she simply stopped returning home when the weekends ended, and the marriage dissolved as silently as sand through dust-dry fingers.
She cracked the gun and checked the bores, pocketed a fistful of shells, tucked the gun under her arm, and walked to the door, where she took her Woolrich shirt from its peg and mashed a tattered red crusher onto her head. Outside, the morning was silvery with overcast, and slick with moist leaves on the dirt road. Kelly turned, walked back to the kitchen, and from the bowl on the table grabbed an apple, a Cox’s Golden Pippin. Each fall she stole them from the ancient tree overhanging the Rattray’s fence. She polished the apple against the coarse wool of her shirt, slipped it in her pocket, and smiled as she closed the door.
Kelly no longer stopped at True’s gate. She’d given up any formality with him before she’d ever attempted any, and she knew it irked him. She swung into his dooryard and began warbling her singsong. “True Raaaaaaaaatraay, come on out and plaaaaaaaaaay.” No answer. She walked on down to the lower orchard, where she saw two flat-soled boots poking from the crown of an apple tree. She walked over and grabbed the ladder, and leaned on it enough to make it jiggle.
“By Golly, Kelly, haven’t you learned yet to stop torturing me? If you send me crashing to the ground it’s you who’ll be fixing my meals and mending my bones and doing all my work. And you and I both know you have a longstanding allergy to work.”
He descended the ladder, and set the full apple bag on the ground and straightened up, stretching his back and looking Kelly full in the face. He couldn’t help but smile at her devilry. “So what exactly are you after with that thunderstick? Hoping to get yourself a bear before they go to ground?”
“True Rattray, I came to ask you to go on a partridge walk with me.” Kelly’s eyes twinkled. “You know how I’m getting on, and my arthritis is acting up, and I can just tell that a pot of partridge soup will set me straight. Besides, we both know that half the young birds in Maine are stacked up in those abandoned trees on your hillside, and that you’d like nothing more than to join me in shooting them. All work and no play makes True Rattray a dull boy.”
True took off his hat and scratched his head. He turned and looked over his shoulder at the west hillside, where a section of old orchard had been abandoned in his youth. There were birds aplenty up there, he knew, and in the early season the young coveys would still be intact. It would make for some easy shooting.
“Jeezums, Kelly. Bird hunting on a Thursday morning. Look at these trees! I got bushels more to pick and a truck coming tomorrow for a load. I can’t see how to find the time.” He looked at the ground, kicked a half-rotten drop, and looked back at the hillside again. “I been seeing some birds, though.”
Kelly knew she had him. “If you’re saying you’d send a gimpy old lady out into the woods alone, you’re certainly not the man I thought I knew, True Rattray. Let’s hope this is where you want to be when the good Lord returns. And while you’re doing that, I’ll gladly cut your partridge population down to size.”
And with that she turned and marched a few steps, leaving True toeing the grass at his feet. Kelly looked back. “True, while I’m gone, enjoy this.” She pulled the apple from her pocket and chucked it to him underhand. He caught it awkwardly.
“Cox’s Golden Pippin.” He said it matter-of-factly. “Only one fellow hereabouts grows these.”
“True Rattray, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Kelly giggled and walked out the gate, dropping two shells into her gun.
The morning turned drizzly. Up there on the hillside, Kelly stood on the carpet of slick fallen leaves, a kaleidoscope of color that seemed to radiate light. She looked off over the lake, and could see a corner of her little house and where the side road met the tar. She could see True’s orchard, and the crisp lines of his house, and his fence, and the stone walls he kept mended and straight. It was all so beautiful, and as full of everything she needed as it was empty of people. Save one. True Rattray’s white shirt stood out against the swath of muted greens in the orchard. She couldn’t see the details, but she knew he was at work.
A loon called out from the lake, and Kelly answered, and the loon answered back. She turned back to the brushy edge of the abandoned hillside. Walking in among the old trees, moving slowly, she’d not gone 10 feet when she heard that chirp-chirp chirrr-chirp right up ahead, and then thunder roaring, and a flash of movement.
It was just movement, though, a blur of brown briefly visible, leaving in its place only leaves gently falling. She never even mounted the gun. Instead, she aimed the little Dickson towards the ground and fired both barrels. She ejected the spent hulls and pocketed them, giggled again, and said out loud. “That’ll get you thinking, now won’t it, True Rattray?”
She reloaded, then struck off again in joy, ever deeper into the autumn hillside.